Composer of the Week: Mozart

This edition of Composer of the Week is a big one: we’re taking a look at Mozart. It’s unlikely that you know anyone who has never heard this name. You may well be familiar with his work and his story yourself. All of this makes it quite difficult to write an article on the subject. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go. Along the way, I’ll share some performances of Mozart’s music that I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Here is the most recent, a movement from one of his inimitable piano concerti:

A Short Life

In a sea of remarkable facts, one of the most remarkable details of Mozart’s life is its startling brevity. In our twenty-first century, we are very fortunate. Most of us can expect to survive into middle age and beyond. But until quite recently (and Mozart didn’t live that long ago), this was not the norm. Rather, the norm was death in childbirth. Those who survived infancy tended to have mortality in mind. I bring this up because I think it explains why they worked so hard and achieved so much: people who know they won’t live forever are more likely to make the most of every second. History has many great people who died, from our perspective, too young. Not least among them was Mozart, who died at 35.

Gold Mouth

We know him as Mozart, but in life he had the rather impressive name Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Of these, my favourite is “Chrysostomus”. It means, quite literally, “golden-mouthed” in Greek. There is obviously something apt about this. While his accomplishments were not in the written or spoken word, they took immortal form in sound, in music, in the epoch-making singularity of his brief but intense life. I want us to try to think of him as a real person, though, so let’s try to set aside the grandeur that his surname evokes and instead stick to Wolfgang. This is Salzburg, the city of his birth, a jewel in the heart of Europe:

Great Expectations

Many people know what it’s like to have a parent who expects big things from his or her children. But few of us will ever know what it was like for the young Wolfgang. By the time Wolfgang was born, his father Leopold had established himself as a great musician and teacher. By all accounts, Leopold was a harsh father. There was an older sister, Maria Anna, whose amazing musical ability was a European sensation. It’s tempting to imagine the young Wolfgang watching his big sister, nicknamed “Nannerl” and aspiring to be like her.

But it didn’t take him very long to catch up; the two toured as child prodigies. By the age of eight, Wolfgang had written a symphony. Personally, there is something about the phenomenon of the child prodigy that does not sit well with me. Without taking anything from Wolfgang or Nannerl, I wonder about the role of Leopold’s self-aggrandisement in all of this. Nevertheless, we see in the life of Wolfgang the rise of the celebrity artist, and of art for art’s sake. We take these things for granted, but at the time this was something of a new phenomenon. 1756, the year of Wolfgang’s birth, was a revolutionary time. America was soon to be born, and Wolfgang’s own life would end just two years after the fall of the French monarchy. These were difficult and frightening times, not unlike our own.

Light and Dark

If you listen to Mozart’s music, with its light, airy, translucent quality, you’d be forgiven for thinking he lived in an exceptionally peaceful time and lived an exceptionally contented life. Quite the opposite was true. Personally, I’ve always felt that the apparent frivolity and lightness of Mozart’s music is also a kind of artifice, a disguise for Wolfgang’s actual inner reality. I find his music not only technically challenging – which it most certainly is – but also quite unsettling, sometimes unbearable. I rather agree with the pianist Artur Schnabel, who famously said that Mozart was in fact the most inaccessible of the great composers.

Wolfgang “Amadeus” Mozart

But this is not to say that Mozart was a dour or boring person. In fact, he was something of a bon vivant. People who knew him and wrote about him tended to portray a man who was mischievous, alert, perhaps a little unpredictable. If he lived in our day, people probably would have described him with that drab, glib term “eccentric” – a kind of underhanded insult that the dull like to pay to those whom they envy. Nothing shows this better than his name. Almost everybody knows, and can tell you, that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a great composer. Almost everybody is wrong and has no idea why. You may have noticed that I introduced Wolfgang with his full name earlier. If you were paying attention you may have wondered why I had left out “Amadeus”.

Well, that simply was not one of his names. It’s a kind of joke he played on the world when he married Constanze. On the marriage certificate, Wolfgang signed his name as “Wolfgang Amade Mozart”. This new middle name is actually a latinisation of one of his names, “Theophilus” which means “God-lover” in Greek. He probably didn’t expect it to reverberate through the ages. Nonetheless, it has.

Missa Brevis

I’ll end this rather rambling article with some music. I hope to be able to add many more performances of Mozart’s music throughout my life. The more of it I experience, the more it draws me in. For now, I’ll leave you with his Missa Brevis in F Major. A Missa Brevis is a “short mass”. It’s a setting of the Latin liturgy, comprising the main events of the Roman Catholic mass. It begins with the Kyrie (Greek for “O Lord”), followed by the Gloria, a bold and forthright statement of the glory and power of God. After this we hear the Credo (“I believe”), a litany of Christian doctrine, then the Sanctus (“Holy”) and the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”). If you’ve spent any time around here, you’ll probably know that one of my fixations is the relationship between religion and music – I’ve touched on it many times, sometimes managing to do so with levity, but always with deep trepidation. Rather than “analyse the text” (God help us), I’ll allow this music to speak for itself:

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